*Photo by your intrepid blogger…if you squint you can see U2 performing “Where The Streets Have No Name” on the right hand side of the stage – September 12, 2017
When I heard U2 was touring in celebration of ‘The Joshua Tree’ 30th Anniversary, I knew I had to see this show… I was even looking into plane tickets and hotels in New York. I considered heading to the Chicago show, but that was the same weekend of the Tom Petty show here in Kansas City, reviewed earlier on B&V (Concert Review: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Kansas City, 6/2/2107), and I am very glad I stayed in town to see Petty. I have a long history with ‘The Joshua Tree’ and the emotional resonance it stirred in me in 1987 remains to this day… Luckily, they announced a KC show, at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs play. I told my friend, The Accountant, “There is a high likelihood I will weep several times during this performance…” Thus is the power of this music for me.
I can remember coming home on spring break, my senior year in college, or well, one of my senior years in college and finding out my brother had already purchased ‘The Joshua Tree’ on cassette tape. I had been on the U2 bandwagon, like most people, since the ‘War’ album. I purchased ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ the day it came out along with ‘Boy’… but I’d been busy with midterms and hadn’t had a chance to pick up ‘The Joshua Tree.’ I remember lying on the floor in my bedroom, with my brother’s cassette tape in my, yes, Sony Walkman cassette player… for you kids out there, think of it as an iPod that was infinitely less cool and considerably bulkier. I was blown away by the album. It had crystallized all the leaps forward and experiments they’d been working toward on ‘Unforgettable Fire.’ The musical universe had changed.
I graduated from college that following May and the Gods cursed me with a job outside of my hometown of Kansas City. I ended up working for a mega corporation and they put me, in all their cruelty, in Ft Smith, Arkansas…aka Ft Hell. The only good thing about Ft Hell was I met Arkansas Joel, a person who turned out to be a friend for life. The Corporation sent me, that December of 1987, down to Atlanta for training. It just so happened that while I was down there starting my training, Arkansas Joel was there finishing his classwork… he was six months ahead of me. He found me in the seedy apartment complex they housed the trainees in and slapped a flier down on the table in front of me. “Ken, U2 is playing here in Atlanta tonight… we’ve gotta go see this show.” Arkansas Joel was an even bigger U2 fan than I am… “We can scalp tickets…” At the time I didn’t have two nickels to rub together and I was concerned about the money… but in truth something else was holding me back. I had met a young lady from Louisiana with a Scarlett O’Hara accent and a mane of long, black hair… Her parents were both from Thailand… she was… alluring.
I smiled wistfully back at Arkansas Joel, slid the flier back across the table and said, “I can’t go… I’ve gotta see about a girl.” Joel was stunned I would give up the chance to see U2 on their biggest tour. Hell, I’m stunned that I said no. I ended up dating the girl for a year before we broke up… Joel, on the other hand, saw the concert of a lifetime. U2 came out in disguise and played a set of country songs to open up for the opening-act. It wasn’t until they played one of the country songs again, in the main set, that Joel realized he’d actually seen U2 twice in one night… Me, I’m left with a lot of regrets and stories about Shreveport. Sigh. The heart wants what the heart wants. If I learned anything, it’s don’t listen to your heart when you’re in your 20s… Every time I see Joel now he says, “Well, you could have seen U2 on ‘The Joshua Tree’ tour but….” Always choose the concert, not the romantic interest.
Now, here we are 30 years later and U2 has returned to celebrate the album I missed out on. I was further encouraged about the concert when last week U2 released their first single from the upcoming album ‘Songs of Experience,’ and it’s a great song. Then, it was announced that Beck would be the opening act. Beck hasn’t toured since he hurt his back 10 years ago. Then, Beck releases 2 new songs last week. The karmic stars were lining up in my favor.
Beck started out the night and I was delighted. He started out with “Devil’s Haircut” and then went right into “Go It Alone.” From there he shoots right into “Black Tambourine” also from the excellent ‘Guero’ album. I will admit, I thought the drums were a tad loud and drowned out the vocals but that was only on the first few performances. He continued with a couple more ‘Guero’ tracks, “Think I’m In Love,” (a favorite of mine and the Rock Chick’s, I might add) and “Que Ondo Guero.” His band looked huge, I still don’t know how many other players he had on stage with him. I was hoping he’d play something from his acoustic side and he didn’t disappoint with the ‘Sea Change’ track, “Lost Cause.” I was hoping for one or two more, perhaps a mini-acoustic set, but he went right back into the noisy side of his catalog with “Loser” which brought the crowd to it’s feet. I was also hoping to hear some of the new stuff… He did play “Wow” but that was the only track he played from the upcoming ‘Colors’ LP… Overall I liked Beck, but at the end of the show, in the middle of “Where It’s At” he does the band intro’s which consisted of each musician playing a snippet of a song. I heard a little Gary Newman, Talking Heads and a big drum solo… then he starts back into “Where It’s At.” Ok, I get it, your band is talented, but Beck could have played a couple more songs rather than do the “band medley” thing. He only played 50 minutes, which is long for an opener, but I was left wanting more. Overall I was glad I saw Beck but was somewhat disappointed in the performance… Maybe if he comes back as a headliner.
Then, to a recording of the Waterboy’s tune “The Whole Of The Moon,” Larry Mullen, Jr came all the way out to the satellite stage, followed by the Edge, Adam Clayton and finally Bono. The energy in the stadium was palpable. They tore into “Sunday Bloody Sunday” followed by “New Year’s Day.” It was an eviscerating rock attack. The Edge’s guitar was loud and he was rocking his ass off. Bono’s vocals needed to be turned up a bit, but he rectified that after the band had returned to the main stage. From the satellite stage they followed up the two ‘War’ songs with two from ‘The Unforgettable Fire.’ The whole 4-song opening set was almost a historical journey of how they got to ‘The Joshua Tree.’ “Pride (In The Name of Love)” was, as you’d expect, spectacular. But it was the preceding “Bad,” a song I’ve always loved but never heard them play live before, that blew my mind. Before I knew it, yes, I was fucking weeping. Luckily I pulled myself together for “Pride.”
After “Pride” was over the band walked the long bridge to the main stage. It was a physical metaphor for their career… when ‘The Joshua Tree’ came out they literally crossed a bridge to superstardom. As they walked toward the main stage to the keyboard intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name” I got goose bumps. It was one of the highlights of the night…and yes a tear drop or two fell for me during that moment. The Edge was amazing. Larry Mullen Jr’s bedrock drumming and Adam Clayton’s bass are such a great engine for U2… Bono was at his most sincere self. He said early on, “Lets let everything else slip away for tonight, let’s enjoy an epic evening of rock and roll…” It certainly was. Although my friend Jean-Genie who was up in the nose-bleed seats said the sound was bad and she groused about the video behind them. It was great from where I was sitting.
After “Where the Streets…” naturally they proceeded to play the entire album, in it’s original sequence. It’s always dicey when a band chooses to perform an entire record as a set. Springsteen did a pretty good job with ‘The River’ but it was such a sprawling mess of a masterpiece it worked. I’ve seen the Cult do both ‘Love’ and ‘Electric’ and both were sensational. But of course, the Cult are a hard rock band so most songs on their albums are of “a piece,” if you will. I did see Motley Crue do the ‘Dr Feelgood’ album and, alas, it was awful. The pacing of an album is rarely set up for concert pacing.
The crowd stayed with U2 for the first half of ‘The Joshua Tree,’ the half with the hits. I’ve seen bands excite a crowd and I’ve seen a crowd’s energy elevate a band. Toward the second half of the album, around the time of “In God’s Country” the crowd’s energy started to flag. I don’t know if people just don’t turn records over any more, or they just listen for the hits. U2 was certainly holding up their end, delivering rocking versions of these songs. I was lapping up all the side 2 stuff, it’s the stuff they never play. “Trip Through Your Wires” is one of the Rock Chick’s all time favorite songs, as it is mine. I know people who are really in to side 2 of ‘The Joshua Tree’ as much as some people fetishize side 2 of the Stones’ ‘Tattoo You,’ it’s that great, people… but alas, Kansas City just stood there. “Exit,” the next to last song rocked with a ferocity I had almost forgotten. It was a true highlight. “Mothers of the Disappeared” found Bono back out on the satellite stage, on his knees in supplication to a video image of, literally, the Mothers of the Disappeared, holding candles. It was moving, striking imagery.
After ‘The Joshua Tree’ was over, the band left the stage. The post-album set, or I guess in this case, the encore was a six song blast of rock and roll. They led off with two ‘All You Can’t Leave Behind’ gems, “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation,” which I hadn’t heard since that tour. Bono continued to deliver positive messages without being preachy at all. He’s a gifted man. And I love his lurch-jump, weird dance move he makes. It’s like a nervous tic. The band did take one brief shot at Trump in a video, but other than that U2 stayed positive and apolitical – “left, right, young, old, everyone is welcome at a U2 show!” Bono exclaimed.
The next track was a screaming, rocking version of “Vertigo.” That tune never gets old. I did zero research on the set list and yet I knew we’d hear that one. I was thrilled they actually did the new song, “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” which I sang loudly to my wife. Live, “Best Thing” really rocks. It translates very well in concert. The way the Edge is playing guitar at these shows bodes very well for the new album.
The final two tracks were from ‘Achtung Baby.’ “Ultraviolet Light (Light My Way)” was a highlight in that it was a deep album cut and totally unexpected. It was performed to a video backdrop of many of the strong women from history from Maya Angelou to Malala to Patti Smith. The message, let’s make history, HERstory… As the father of a daughter, I was moved. Finally, as you would expect, they ended with a beautiful crowd singalong for “One.” It was the perfect ending.
And with that, U2 disappeared into the night… As Bono promised, it was an “epic night of rock and roll.” And at last, thirty years later, I finally exorcised the demons created by a very bad decision on a cold, December Atlanta night. Buy the ticket folks, take the ride!